Shortly after Sun-Times Media bought the Reader, CEO Edwin Eisendrath admitted he didn’t really know what an “alternative” publication in Chicago had to offer these days. Alternative to what?
In some ways, he had a point. Alt-weeklies have increasingly become a victim of their own success. The countercultural beat of weed, LGBTQ pride, edgy theater, and punk music that once set the alternative press apart have increasingly become permanently etched into mainstream urban life. The entrenched power structures that used to vehemently oppose the rights of gays—Republicans, the police, and the military—now regularly march at Pride parades. Billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker wants Illinoisians to be able to smoke weed for fun. Riot Fest, punk rock’s annual nostalgia fest, doesn’t inspire anything resembling a riot.
It’s instructive to watch Bruce Rauner rule. Our governor supports abortion rights, donated to Planned Parenthood, and officiated at a gay wedding earlier this year, but continues his Koch brothers-like class war against unions and the poor and gets to call himself a “moderate” without being laughed out of office. Guess what—Rahm Emanuel isn’t all that different from Rauner.
It’s not that the traditional alternative weekly beats are irrelevant in 2018—far from it. But as we were all reminded in stunning fashion on Election Day 2016, it’s possible for what’s known as the left to dominate the culture war while still badly losing the battle over resources. Donald Trump and the right-wing reactionaries of the GOP have been relegated to the margins in our popular culture, yet they own the White House, Congress, and the majority of statehouses and governorships throughout the country, and many of us are suffering as a result.
Philosopher Richard Rorty’s 20-year-old work Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America reached a new level of notoriety in 2016 for predicting the rise of a populist right-wing strongman like Trump, but the rest of the book should be revisited because of its prescient prescription of the left. Rorty argues that the left ceased to be political and instead became a cultural movement once it was no longer seen as possible to promote social justice from within the system. Self-expression trumped persuasion, and the left largely abandoned government, law, and institutions of power—and the working class—for the ivory towers of the arts, literature, and academia.
But it’s not enough to simply speak truth to power, Rorty wrote. The vast economic and material inequities of American society had to be “corrected by using the institutions of constitutional democracy.” And that meant acquiring power by taking control of institutions and persuading those who disagree. That’s essentially what politics is—the way we make laws and distribute resources through the state, but that term has been largely been distorted so that it’s mostly equated with the optics of major elections.
One very small way I’ve attempted to keep the Reader relevant—to serve as an “alternative” to other news outlets in Chicago—is by focusing on writing about the growing movement of people who’ve been trying to correct this problem of political power for the left, people largely dismissed by the mainstream media as marginal radicals, dissidents, rabble-rousers, and socialists.
That movement looks stronger than ever in Chicago. Chance the Rapper, an artist who wields an incredible amount of cultural power, recognizes the importance of the political kind. He just endorsed Amara Enyia, a Garfield Park activist and director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, for mayor. There’s also a rally tonight in support of three socialist candidates hoping to be elected to the Chicago City Council—two of whom I’ve profiled—attended by a socialist city councilman from Seattle.
I’m thankful that I’ve had plenty of opportunities over the last three and a half years here to document this political shift. Admittedly, sometimes that’s meant an occasional strikeout or pop-up to short, but I’d like to think I’ve hit a few home runs along the way.
Certainly, my job has sometimes resembled a contact sport, and I don’t just mean the death threats I received for my pointed opinions about Star Wars and the Ricketts family. I vividly remember being caught up in the million-man mosh of Clark Street outside Wrigley Field the night the Cubs won the World Series in 2016. A few days later of the Trump rally at UIC, I was repeatedly jostled while covering the chaotic aftermath of that thrilling night that Chicago successfully resisted our horrifying president-to-be in a way that has yet to be matched. The bilious billionaire got his revenge in November, of course, and I went deep into the Loop’s heart of darkness—the Trump Tower—on Primary Night, Election Night and Inauguration Day to cover it (and eventually got kicked out by hotel security).
I’ve also joined the fray of a French labor riot (and got teargassed in the process), snuck into the quasi-wilderness of Rezkoville multiple times and drank a beer with a homeless couple camped inside of it, speed-dated on the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, explored creepy caves and cemeteries in southern Illinois, wrote a 7,000 word feature based on a strange AirBnB I stayed in, got elbowed by someone dressed as a T-Rex at a porn convention, and nearly had Stormy Daniels’s bra thrown at my face while covering her strip show at the Admiral Theatre on Trump’s birthday.
I’ll be forever grateful to former Reader editor in chief Jake Malooley and associate editor Gwynedd Stuart for taking a chance on someone who was once more likely to end up at Christianity Today than a big-city alternative weekly.
I was raised in the kind of fundamentalist evangelical church that condemned homosexuality, rock ‘n’ roll, and left-leaning politics as being of the devil—and I mean that in the literal sense. As a kid, I remember squirming in my pew as our pastor, his glass eye always gleaming under the lights, barked at us about the dangers of Satan as if the Prince of Darkness himself had escaped from hell and lived down the street from us, ready to pry our souls away at any moment.
But hey, the scare tactics worked. Partially out of fear of this ever-looming Satanic doom, I remained a straight arrow of a kid and young adult who dutifully mimicked the reactionary faith and politics of those around me. I never joined the 700 Club, but surely my credentials made me an honorary member: Junior Bible Quiz champion, choirboy, George W. Bush voter, missionary. Those credentials have since been revoked. To keep an Old Testament-size story short, I rebelled, eventually ditched the church, and hit the figurative reset button on my life when I moved to Chicago.
In the end, I believe in the power of persuasion over shame and the condemnation of the “other” that tends to rule on social media because of my own personal experience. I didn’t come to turn away from Rush Limbaugh and embrace someone like Noam Chomsky through a single tweet or a Paul-like conversion moment on the streets of Chicago. I was convinced through years of patient conversations with others, fearless journalism, and by keeping an open mind towards the good ideas of others. I’m certain that I’m not done growing and changing my mind.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s once wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, but my story is proof that there is. Hell, now that I’m leaving the Reader there’s an outside chance I’m at the intermission before act three.
Here’s hoping that we’re also in the midst of a brand-new act of our politics.